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Presumpscot River Dam Open to Fish Passage for First Time in 150 Years
05/01/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

For the first time in a century and a half, migratory fish will be able to move upstream through the Cumberland Mills Dam on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. Conservationists joined with the dam's owners at the grand opening of a new fish ladder project today, which is the result of years of legal wrangling. Keith Shortall reports.

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Among those who turned out for the grand opening was the managing director for the Sappi Fine Paper mill in Westbrook, which owns the Cumberland Mills Dam. Donna Cassesse says the fish ladder (above) is cause for celebration: It marks a new step in returning shad, alewives, herring and eel to the Presumpscot.

"It's been approximately 150 years, so obviously this is why we're so excited today," she said.

But the company has not always been so supportive of fish passage. For nearly two decades, Sappi has resisted efforts to restore migrating fish runs. The company was ordered by the state back in 2009 to install fish ladders at Cumberland Mills, and that project is now complete.

Ivy Frignoca is a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, which has worked for years to get fish passage installed at the dam in Westbrook. She turned out for the grand opening, which she says could be just the beginning of a new era of fish restoration.

"It's a great day because, not only is the fish ladder opening here, which is the first step in reopening complete fish passage on the Presumpscot River, there's a plan in place to create fish passage, or fish ladders, at the subsequent dams upriver," Frignoca says.

Frignoca says the return of spawning alewives to the river is important for the rivers' ecosystem, and for other creatures that depend on them for survival. "They're a critical species in the food chain, because they provide food for a lot of other species, both fish and birds, and they also provide cover for a lot of other migrating species, like salmon," she says.

Sappi's Donna Cassesse says plans are underway for opening more of the river to migratory fish, and that at least one dam, at Saccarappa Falls, could be taken down altogether.

"The next fishway is designated to be online in 2015," Cassesse says. "And, as you know, we are currently working with the city to explore some different options, including, potentially, dam removal there, so that we can give the city an opportunity to improve on the recreational opportunities in downtown Westbrook."

CLF"s Ivy Fignoca says there's another reason for celebration: the opening of a fish ladders at the Grand Falls Dam on the St. Croix river in eastern Maine, which will clear the way for alewives after an absence of nearly two decades.

The state had closed the St. Croix to alewives in 1995 in response to concerns that they harmed small mouth bass populations, a popular sport fish. The Legislature reversed that policy this year, and the Grand Falls fish ladder is now open.

Photo by Sarah Currie.


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